Menus Subscribe Search

Welcome to Shelbyville: Loving, Fearing Thy Neighbors

• May 22, 2011 • 4:00 AM

In the documentary film “Welcome to Shelbyville,” a small Tennessee town deals with an influx of residents from Somalia.

In news headlines and broadcast bulletins, the word “Somali” is inevitably followed by a dread-inducing plural noun: “pirates” or “warlords” or “terrorists.” So it’s no surprise that natives of the war-ravaged East African country of Somalia are viewed with fear and suspicion by many, if not most, Americans.

When significant numbers of Somali refugees moved to Shelbyville, Tenn., (population 16,000) to work at the nearby Tyson Foods processing plant, the town’s residents reacted with deep suspicion. “We don’t know what diseases they have,” a former mayor frets in the opening minutes of the new documentary film Welcome to Shelbyville. Intensifying his fear is the fact the newcomers are Muslims, which in his view means: “They want to kill us.”

That lack of political correctness makes Shelbyville an ideal setting for a film about immigration and assimilation. When a feisty black resident named Beverly Hewitt visits the home of a Somali immigrant family, she minces no words, informing them, “Most folks think you’re plum mean,” and asking, “You’re not terrorists, right?” In Shelbyville, unspoken fears get spoken and sometimes even assuaged.

Kim Snyder’s documentary, which premieres on PBS May 24 as part of the Independent Lens series, provides a mosaic-like portrait of a town in transition. The film begins just before the election of Barack Obama, which excites some residents and worries others. But their immediate concern is the Somali families who have recently arrived, unannounced. Legal residents who came to the U.S. as part of a refugee-resettlement program, they found temporary homes in Nashville before migrating to this rural area in search of blue-collar jobs.

“I always imagined America as a place where I could work, find a better education and live peacefully,” says Somali Hawo Siyard, sounding strikingly similar to the immigrants who came before her. One longtime local who can sympathize is Miguel Gonzalez, a Mexican native (and American citizen) who moved to the area years earlier to work in an auto plant. His family wasn’t welcomed with open arms, either.

Gonzalez and Hewitt are both part of a grassroots organization called Welcoming America that works with communities to foster better relations between locals and their foreign-born neighbors. The film chronicles attempts to begin and sustain a dialogue between newcomers and old-timers. This effort involves occasional field trips: Shelbyville calls itself the “Walking Horse Capital of the World,” and one amusingly incongruous image finds colorfully dressed, headscarf-wearing Somali women taking in their first horse show.

One problem, at least as the Somalis perceive it, is the local newspaper; they view its coverage as slanted against them, emphasizing the negative. In a decidedly uncomfortable scene, reporter Brian Mosely — internal fight-or-flight system fully engaged, by the look of his awkward body language — visits a Somali home to explain his role and better understand their viewpoint. We later learn his coverage of the controversy has won awards.

“This is a lot of change for a small town to grapple with,” Snyder says. “I can understand why it’s tough. They have no context for what’s happening. There isn’t anybody going to these places and saying, ‘Here’s a little background about these people who are coming.’ Hopefully the film will help in this regard. It’s being shown in a lot of communities that mirror the demographics of Shelbyville.”

The hourlong film spends a lot of time with the town’s religious leaders, who are trying to help congregants reconcile their faith (which instructs them to love their new neighbors) with their fears. The most enthusiastic group is the Baptists, which seems odd until you realize they view these newcomers as potential converts. “The mission field has been brought to us!” one enthusiastic believer declares.

Watch the full episode. See more Independent Lens.

“There are a lot of perspectives in this little town,” Snyder notes. “This [demographic shift] entails some loss for most parties, but also potential opportunities. How you define those losses and opportunities are different for each group.” That understanding is shared by the local sheriff, who seems bemused as he points out that his tiny town has become “one of the most culturally diverse places in America.” Try to imagine one of his Civil Rights-era predecessors saying the same, and you realize we really have made some progress.

“I think it is a hopeful film,” Snyder says. “I’m even more hopeful after seeing how it’s being used. Some people in Corvallis, Ore., wrote me after the local mosque was bombed and asked if they could show the film there. There have been so many reactions like that, where it’s been shown in places where there is tension [between locals and newcomers], or where they simply say, ‘This is our story.’”

And that reaction isn’t exclusive to the United States. Snyder has shown the film to receptive audiences in European cities grappling with immigration. And as part of a State Department program designed to expose people around the world to American ideals and culture, she brought the documentary to Nigeria last August.

“The first time I saw it with an audience was in Kano, a majority-Muslim city in northern Nigeria,” she said. “People were so appreciative of the film. Christian-Muslim killings had taken place in a neighboring town two weeks prior. From their perspective, the fact the people of Shelbyville weren’t turning to violence meant a lot. They commented, ‘Look what this small town was able to do!’”

Whether you’re in urban Nigeria or rural Tennessee (which was Klan country only a half-century ago), it’s easy to caricature newly arrived immigrants. But it’s also easy to stereotype longtime locals who fear for the cohesion of their communities. Welcome to Shelbyville avoids falling into either trap, portraying all its characters with sensitivity and empathy. “I hear they’re very aggressive,” one local man says of the Somalis. “But maybe a year ago, they were fighting for food. They had to be aggressive.”

Sign up for the free Miller-McCune.com e-newsletter.

“Like” Miller-McCune on Facebook.

Follow Miller-McCune on Twitter.

Add Miller-McCune.com news to your site.

Subscribe to Miller-McCune

Tom Jacobs
Staff writer Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for The Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Ventura County Star.

More From Tom Jacobs

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

August 29 • 4:00 PM

The Hidden Costs of Tobacco Debt

Even when taxpayers aren’t explicitly on the hook, tobacco bonds can cost states and local governments money. Here’s how.


August 29 • 2:00 PM

Why Don’t Men and Women Wear the Same Gender-Neutral Bathing Suits?

They used to in the 1920s.


August 29 • 11:48 AM

Your Brain Decides Whether to Trust Someone in Milliseconds

We can determine trustworthiness even when we’re only subliminally aware of the other person.


August 29 • 10:00 AM

True Darwinism Is All About Chance

Though the rich sometimes forget, Darwin knew that nature frequently rolls the dice.


August 29 • 8:00 AM

Why Our Molecular Make-Up Can’t Explain Who We Are

Our genes only tell a portion of the story.


August 29 • 6:00 AM

Strange Situations: Attachment Theory and Sexual Assault on College Campuses

When college women leave home, does attachment behavior make them more vulnerable to campus rape?


August 29 • 4:00 AM

Forgive Your Philandering Partner—and Pay the Price

New research finds people who forgive an unfaithful romantic partner are considered weaker and less competent than those who ended the relationship.


August 28 • 4:00 PM

Some Natural-Looking Zoo Exhibits May Be Even Worse Than the Old Concrete Ones

They’re often designed for you, the paying visitor, and not the animals who have to inhabit them.


August 28 • 2:00 PM

What I Learned From Debating Science With Trolls

“Don’t feed the trolls” is sound advice, but occasionally ignoring it can lead to rewards.


August 28 • 12:00 PM

The Ice Bucket Challenge’s Meme Money

The ALS Association has raised nearly $100 million over the past month, 50 times what it raised in the same period last year. How will that money be spent, and how can non-profit executives make a windfall last?


August 28 • 11:56 AM

Outlawing Water Conflict: California Legislators Confront Risky Groundwater Loophole

California, where ambitious agriculture sucks up 80 percent of the state’s developed water, is no stranger to water wrangles. Now one of the worst droughts in state history is pushing legislators to reckon with its unwieldy water laws, especially one major oversight: California has been the only Western state without groundwater regulation—but now that looks set to change.


August 28 • 11:38 AM

Young, Undocumented, and Invisible

While young migrant workers struggle under poor working conditions, U.S. policy has done little to help.


August 28 • 10:00 AM

The Five Words You Never Want to Hear From Your Doctor

“Sometimes people just get pains.”


August 28 • 8:00 AM

Why I’m Not Sharing My Coke

Andy Warhol, algorithms, and a bunch of popular names printed on soda cans.


August 28 • 6:00 AM

Can Outdoor Art Revitalize Outdoor Advertising?

That art you’ve been seeing at bus stations and billboards—it’s serving a purpose beyond just promoting local museums.


August 28 • 4:00 AM

Linguistic Analysis Reveals Research Fraud

An examination of papers by the discredited Diederik Stapel finds linguistic differences between his legitimate and fraudulent studies.


August 28 • 2:00 AM

Poverty and Geography: The Myth of Racial Segregation

Migration, regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, or sexuality (not to mention class), can be a poverty-buster.


August 27 • 4:00 PM

The ‘Non-Lethal’ Flash-Bang Grenades Used in Ferguson Can Actually Be Quite Lethal

A journalist says he was singed by a flash-bang fired by St. Louis County police trying to disperse a crowd, raising questions about how to use these military-style devices safely and appropriately.


August 27 • 2:00 PM

Do Better Looking People Have Better Personalities Too?

An experiment on users of the dating site OKCupid found that members judge both looks and personality by looks alone.


August 27 • 12:00 PM

Love Can Make You Stronger

A new study links oxytocin, the hormone most commonly associated with social bonding, and the one that your body produces during an orgasm, with muscle regeneration.


August 27 • 11:05 AM

Education, Interrupted

When it comes to educational access, young Syrian refugees are becoming a “lost generation.”


August 27 • 9:47 AM

No, Smartphone-Loss Anxiety Disorder Isn’t Real

But people are anxious about losing their phones, even if they don’t do much to protect them.


August 27 • 8:00 AM

A Skeptic Meets a Psychic: When You Can See Into the Future, How Do You Handle Uncertainty?

For all the crystal balls and beaded doorways, some psychics provide a useful, non-paranormal service. The best ones—they give good advice.


August 27 • 6:00 AM

Speaking Eyebrow: Your Face Is Saying More Than You Think

Our involuntary gestures take on different “accents” depending on our cultural background.


August 27 • 4:00 AM

The Politics of Anti-NIMBYism and Addressing Housing Affordability

Respected expert economists like Paul Krugman and Edward Glaeser are confusing readers with their poor grasp of demography.


Follow us


Subscribe Now

Your Brain Decides Whether to Trust Someone in Milliseconds

We can determine trustworthiness even when we’re only subliminally aware of the other person.

Young, Undocumented, and Invisible

While young migrant workers struggle under poor working conditions, U.S. policy has done little to help.

Education, Interrupted

When it comes to educational access, young Syrian refugees are becoming a “lost generation.”

No, Smartphone-Loss Anxiety Disorder Isn’t Real

But people are anxious about losing their phones, even if they don’t do much to protect them.

Being a Couch Potato: Not So Bad After All?

For those who feel guilty about watching TV, a new study provides redemption.

The Big One

One in two full-time American fast-food workers' families are enrolled in public assistance programs, at a cost of $7 billion per year. July/August 2014 fast-food-big-one

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.